The Keys to the White House, a prediction system that correctly forecasted the outcomes of all eight presidential elections since 1984 demonstrate that neither the choices of the party nominees nor campaign events will affect the outcome of America’s 2016 presidential election. The election will turn on the performance of the party controlling the White House. Although prospects look bright for another Democratic victory, the Keys indicate how circumstances could shift to favour the Republicans.
A New Vision of Presidential Politics
Leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties are worried about the ‘electability’ of their leading candidates for the presidency of the United States. Republicans fear that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are too abrasive and xenophobic for the moderate voters in a general election dominated by moderate voters. Democrats fret over Hillary Clinton’s likeability and the controversies over the Clinton Foundation and her use of a private email server while United States Secretary of State. They worry whether America is ready for a woman president or as an alternative Senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed ‘Democratic socialist’. Republicans also worry about the potential for a protracted nomination struggle, which they believe would weaken the party.
All of these fears are unfounded. The identity of the Republican and Democratic Party nominees will have no impact on the outcome of the 2016 presidential contest. Neither Donald Trump’s bluster nor Hillary Clinton’s gender will impede their path to the White House under the right circumstances. Republican candidates for the presidential nomination can battle through their National Convention without jeopardising their chances for winning in November. Extended nomination contest only matter for the party already holding the White House, not the challenging party.
These conclusions are grounded in a historically-based prediction system for American presidential elections: The Keys to the White House. I developed the keys in 1981 in collaboration with Volodia Keilis-Borok, a world-renowned authority on prediction methods. The keys are based on a retrospective analysis of elections from 1860 (the beginning of the modern Republican vs. Democratic era) to 1980. The keys system has correctly forecast the outcome of all eight American presidential elections from 1984 to 2012. (See Lichtman, 2012) The Keys are accurate at a time when the pollsand other prediction models cannot provide even roughly reliable forecasts. For example, in April 2003, the Keys forecasted George W. Bush’s reelection and in early 2006, the Keys forecasted a Democratic victory in 2008. The successful prediction for hard-to-call 2012 was first issued in January 2010.
The Keys to the White House demonstrate that American presidential election results are primarily referenda on the performance of the party controlling the White House and that politics as usual by the challenging candidate will have no impact on results. Whether or not the sitting president is seeking reelection the American electorate chooses a president according to how well the White House party has governed the nation, as measured by the consequential events and episodes of a term – economic boom and bust, foreign policy successes and failures, social unrest, scandal, and policy innovation. Nothing that a candidate has said or done during a campaign, when the public discounts everything as political, has changed his prospects at the polls. Debates, advertising, television appearances, news coverage, and campaign strategies – the usual grist for the punditry mills – count for virtually nothing on Election Day.
The media spends hundreds of millions of dollars covering presidential general election campaigns as though they were horse races, with candidates darting ahead and falling behind, even before a single vote is cast. This horse race coverage only serves to promote negative, shallow, sound-bite driven campaigns. If candidates came to understand how American presidential election really work they would abandon conventional politics and develop the themes, issues and grassroots support needed for effective governance during the next four years.
The Keys Model
The Keys are 13 diagnostic questions that are stated as propositions that favour re-election of the incumbent party (See Table 1 below). When five or fewer of these propositions are false or turned against the party holding the White House, that party wins another term in office. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins.
A degree of judgment is required to answer some of the key questions, because the real world cannot accurately be captured by so-called ‘objective’ questions alone. However, the amount of subjectivity is far less than meets the eye, given the careful definition of each key in the published material, the record of how each key was turned in 8 elections from 1860 to 2012, and the successful predictions from 1984 to 2012. Elasticity on calling the keys cannot explain the correct prediction of elections with unknown outcomes.
The Verdict for 2016
Currently four keys fall against the incumbent Democratic Party, two fewer than the six negative keys needed to predict the party’s defeat. However, several keys are as yet indeterminate, so although the outlook looks positive for Democrats, a final prediction is not yet feasible. (See Table 2 below).
The following four keys count against the incumbent Democrats this year:
•The party’s losses in the 2014-midterm elections have cost it Mandate Key 1.
•President Obama’s inability to compete for a third term topples Incumbency Key 3
•The lack of a historic policy change in the second Obama administration forfeits Policy Change Key 7
•The absence of a Democratic candidate with the charisma of a Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy costs the party Incumbent Charisma Key 12.
The following 6 Keys currently favour the incumbent Democrats:
•The fact that the United States is in a slow recovery, not an ongoing recession, secures Short-Term Economy Key 5.
•Relatively strong economic growth in the second Obama term as compared to his previous term and George W. Bush’s second term locks in Long-Term Economy Key 6.
•The absence of sustained, violent upheavals like those of the 1960’s, avoids loss of the Social Unrest Key 8.
•The lack of any significant presidential scandal like the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, averts the loss of Scandal Key 9.
•The president has not suffered a major foreign policy or military failure, comparable to Pearl Harbor or losing the Vietnam War, keeping Foreign/Military Failure Key 10 in line.
•The Republican challengers lack the charisma of Theodore Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. Even their most dynamic potential candidate Donald Trump, appeals only to a small segment of the electorate. Thus, Democrats retain the Challenger Charisma/Hero Key 13
The following three keys are indeterminate:
•Incumbent Party Contest Key 2
•Third-Party Key 4.
•Foreign/Military Success Key 10.
As of this writing it does not appear as though Hillary Clinton will be challenged seriously for the Democratic Party nomination, salvaging Contest Key 2 for the party. However, that reality could change if controversies over her emails or the practices of the Clinton Foundation bloomed into a major scandal.
Ironically, Sanders could single-handedly contribute to the election of a Republican in 2016 if (1) he defies the odds and achieves a serious primary challenge to Hillary Clinton and (2) he mounts a third party campaign after losing the nomination. However, both scenarios are unlikely in the extreme. Sanders does not have the capacity for a sustained primary challenge and has shown any inclination to run an independent campaign for president.
The most intriguing scenarios for 2016 turn on Foreign/Military Success Key 11. The Democrats could win this Key and essentially wrap up the election through either the agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program or the Paris climate change accords. Opponents and supporters both agree that the Iran treaty is of great significance with profound consequences for the Middle East, However, the treaty is not fully implemented and the American people are skeptical of Iran’s compliance. We will know far more about its effectiveness as of this spring when the parties are anticipating implementation – or not.
Some authorities have lauded Paris climate change accords, agreed to by some 200 nations, as a ‘landmark’ breakthrough in containing potentially catastrophic changes to the world’s climate. Critics have said that it requires too little of polluting nations and lacks binding commitments. It will take some time to analyse fully the implications of this agreement and the responses of the American people.
The deadly terrorist attacks in Paris also pose new peril for the incumbent Democrats. In the current climate of fear in the United States a successful attack on the homeland from outside terrorists could topple the Foreign/Military Failure Key 11 and bring the incumbent Democrats to within one key of defeat.
In sum, conventional commentary misses the key factors that will turn America’s November election. Instead of looking at the minutiae of campaigns, keep your eye on the big picture of events at home and abroad. As of now prospects are generally bright for Democrats and could become brighter if they avoid a nomination struggle and achieve a major foreign policy triumph. However, Democratic prospects could be upended by a setback in the campaign against terrorism, an unexpectedly extended nomination fight, a Sanders third party campaign. Although most unlikely, it is still at least possible that the American economy will suddenly plunge into a recession.
Lessons of the Keys
The keys that anticipate the outcome of the popular vote in every election since 1860 close the chasm opened by conventional political commentary between the selection of a president and the governing of the country. In conventional horse-race commentary the record of the incumbent administration in governing America becomes little more than a backdrop for the real action of debates, speeches, ads, rallies, events, endorsements, and so on. The keys, however, show that effective governing, as measured by the consequential events of a presidential term, not packaging, image-making or campaigning keeps incumbent parties in office and renders futile conventional campaigning by challengers.
The lessons for Democrats are clear. Senator Sanders should avoid a third-party campaign, which only has the potential to turn another key against the incumbent Democrats. Hillary Clinton should focus on establishing a basis for governing over the next four years. She should present to the country a bold, substantive message that foreshadows her presidential priorities. She will need the strongest mandate possible to govern effectively, given the likelihood of that the GOP will retain control of the US House of Representatives. Democrats should do everything in their power to make the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris accords on climate change major successes.
Unlike the incumbent Democrats, the Republicans need not worry about a major nomination battle – which seems likely. Historically, there is no relationship between nomination struggles within challenging parties and victory or defeat in the general presidential election as demonstrated by the long and sometimes bitter contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008. Republican voters should also avoid speculating about the ‘electability’ of potential candidates and vote according to their beliefs. The outcome of the Republican nomination contest will have no bearing on the November results, unless Donald Trump loses and runs a third-party campaign.
About the Author
Allan J. Lichtman is Distinguished Professor of History at American University in Washington, D.C. He has published more than 200 scholarly and popular articles and nine books that have won numerous national awards. Dr. Lichtman has provided commentary for all major U.S. television and radio networks, the Voice of America, and many foreign broadcast companies. He has been an expert witness in more than 80 federal civil rights cases.
• Armstrong, J. S. & A. G. Cuzan (2006). Index Methods for Forecasting: An Application to the American Presidential Elections. Foresight: The International Journal of Applied Forecasting, (2006, 3), 10-13.
• Lichtman, A. J. (2012). The Keys to the White House, 2012 Edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.